“Many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically. Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don't sound like a professional scholar, then readers won't believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.”
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Thursday, February 21, 2013
The below essay comes from my colleague, Paul Franklin Stregevsky, and is reprinted with his permission. Despite its impending Bar Mitzvah (it originally appeared in the Washington Post in 2000), it remains an instant classic.
“How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2000?”
So asks Question 1 of the U.S. Census 2000. That’s easy: five. But wait—there are two answer blocks. Should the 5 go in the left block, or the right? If the right, should I write a 0 in the left block? If I guess wrong, the computer may think I mean 50. Or zero.
Perhaps Question 2 will prove less tricky: House number. Easy: 13. But what’s this? There are 10 blocks. Will the computer look for my digits in the left blocks? Or the right? I know what I think they want. The question is: What do they think I think they want?
“If you need help completing this form,” promises the bold print, “call 1-800-471-9424.” I call. After dodging the automated responses, I explain my problem to Tracy. Sweet, unsuspecting Tracy. Nothing has prepared her for a dimwit like me. She starts to recite the “who to include” tips that appear on the form, directly below my two empty blocks.
“Tracy,” I interrupt, “have you been trained to give me any response other than the advice on the form?”
I scour the census mailing for a web address. Bingo. I log on to http://www.2000.census.gov, where a bold hyperlink promises that you can “find help with any problems you might have in responding to the census.” Any. I like any.
Two clicks later, I’m at “Questions for Person 1” (me). But wait: The list starts with Question 3! The Census Bureaucrats can’t imagine someone having angst over Q1 or Q2. They can’t imagine someone who finds ambiguity in the simplest statement. They can’t, in short, imagine me—a technical writer.
I don’t doubt that 95% of non-morons find Questions 1 and 2 perfectly clear. Their lucky souls would puzzle how anyone could infer two meanings from such simple questions. And I am equally mystified how they see just one. In my perfect world, everyone would be as befuddled as I.
My dad certainly was. To his dying day, he would shortcircuit each time my mother asked him to “turn up the air conditioning.” If the dial reads 70, was he supposed to turn the dial forward, to 72, or backward, to 68?
Our apparently congenital affliction has brought untold grief into my marital life, as well. “Put this bowl over there,” my first wife, Susan, would say, nodding vaguely northeast. I’d stare blankly “over there,” then ask, “Do you mean on the table, or on the counter?”
One clear, crisp autumn day, I was standing outside our apartment when Susan called down: “Is it cold outside?” I responded sensibly: “That depends. There’s a lot of radiant heat. But there’s not much convective heat.” To my astonishment, she asked again. So I clarified: “If you stand in the sun and wear a jacket, you’ll feel warm. In the shade without a jacket, you’ll feel cold.” When she asked a third time, I lost all patience. “Look,” I called tersely, “It’s about 70 degrees in the sun, 60 in the shade, and the wind is blowing at 8 miles an hour. Is it cold outside? You decide.”
The next summer, at lunch, Susan asked me to pour some juice into her tapered champagne glass. “How far?” I asked. “About halfway,” she replied. Here we go. “Halfway by volume, or halfway by height?” Before long, my dear wife had had enough. Now, I’m someone else’s headache.
You see, I’ve literally made a career of combating ambiguity. As a technical writer, I live by Francis Bacon’s creed: “Write not so that you can be understood, but so that you cannot be misunderstood.” As a technical editor, I used to pale when instructed to “just fix obvious mistakes.” Danger, Will Robinson. To a professional idiot, all ambiguity is obvious.
Yet despite what two bosses, one ex-wife, and one current wife may think, I am far from alone in my befuddlement. “You Can’t Miss It”—my thesis for a master’s degree in technical and professional communication—explored how drivers deal with confusing directions. “Go half a mile,” you’re assured, “then turn left at Center Street.” You drive half a mile and come to Center Boulevard. Do you turn? Or do you drive on, hoping that Center Street is just around the bend?
Normal people boast that they arrive at a correct understanding by quickly filtering out irrelevant interpretations. When you test them, however, the truth emerges: Other meanings just don’t occur to them. For example, I’ve always had a problem remembering which way to adjust my clock every spring and fall, because I don’t get the mnemonic “Spring forward, fall back.” This morning, should 2 A.M. have become 3 A.M. or 1 A.M.? Friends can’t imagine my confusion. “Forward means forward,” they say.
Oh? Suppose you have a 2 P.M. department meeting. That morning, the boss’s secretary calls and says, “The boss can’t make the two o’clock. He’s moved the meeting an hour forward.”
So when’s the meeting? Three o’clock? Or one o’clock? Would you bet your next promotion on it?
The once-infallible College Board has conceded that some of its questions may unwittingly allow two correct answers. After sitting for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, you can now receive the answers and challenge the Board’s “correct” answer. The kids who win these challenges are my teen idols. They make the Board bump up the SAT scores of all savants who answered, “Either B or C.” I’d go further, stripping points from every automaton who answered, “only B.”
Letterman and Leno had a field day when President Clinton told Paula Jones’s lawyers “it depends on that the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” but I understood. Look up the root of is, the verb be, and you’ll find eight meanings. If “To be, or not to be” is the question, Bill and I have 16 answers.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all who would cross the Bridge of Death had to answer three questions posed by its keeper. They who failed were flung into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. The bridge keeper asked King Arthur, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” The king replied, “What do you mean? An African or European swallow?”
“What? I don’t know that!” the keeper protested. Whoosh! The keeper was flung to his death. The tables were turned.
Maybe, if the tables are turned enough times, the questions on Census 2010 will be the census for the Rest of Us. Beneath each question will appear an example—or two. On the Web, just below the link to Frequently Asked Questions, will be a link to IFQs—Infrequently Asked Questions, designed for the clueless multitude. Or, as it were, minitude.
And Tracy 2010 will be as lonely as the Maytag repairman.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The Times documents how gun metaphors pervade our everyday language:
When the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence wanted to promote more restrictions on firearms after the Connecticut school shootings in December, it turned to a firm to help publicize its position. The firm’s name? Point Blank Public Affairs.
When Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. promised ideas for responding to the massacre, he said he was “shooting for Tuesday”—even as he warned that there is “no silver bullet” for stopping gun violence. When President Obama noted that he was reviewing those ideas, he said on a different topic that he would not negotiate “with a gun at the head.”
No wonder it is hard to get rid of gun violence when Washington cannot even get rid of gun vocabulary. The vernacular of guns suffuses the political and media conversation in ways that politicians and journalists are often not even conscious of, underscoring the historical power of guns in the American experience. Candidates “target” their opponents, lawmakers “stick to their guns,” advocacy groups “take aim” at hostile legislation and reporters write about a White House “under fire.”
Read the full article.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Thursday, January 17, 2013
Seth Godin plucks an intriguing distinction out of our everyday vocabulary:
To "convince" is to employ logic. To "persuade" is to employ emotion.
Engineers use syllogisms to convince people. Marketers use stories to persuade people.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Monday, December 03, 2012
A version of this blog post appeared on No Straw Men on April 6, 2009.
I work in the field of “strategic communications.” In my past job, I worked on “strategic partnerships,” among other things. Both terms are well-established, yet both are 50% meaningless.
After all, aren’t all communications “strategic”? Do nonstrategic partnerships even exist?
The truth is, these are differences without a distinction. As any semanticist will tell you, if you can remove the adjective without changing the meaning of the noun, chuck the adjective. It’s a buzzword, “an important-sounding, usually technical word or phrase, often of little meaning, used chiefly to impress laymen.”
Think of this speciousness the next time you’re tempted to employ such jargon.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Tuesday, September 04, 2012
I changed my iPod’s name to Titanic. It’s syncing now.
When chemists die, they barium.
Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.
I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. But he says he can stop any time.
How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.
I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.
This girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I’d never met herbivore.
I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can’t put it down.
I did a theatrical performance about puns. It was a play on words.
They told me I had type A blood, but it was a type O.
PMS jokes are not funny. Period.
Why were the Indians here first? They had reservations.
We’re going on a class trip to the Coca-Cola factory. I hope there’s no pop quiz.
I didn’t like my beard at first. Then it grew on me.
Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?
When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.
Broken pencils are pointless.
I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.
What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus.
England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.
I used to be a banker, but then I lost interest.
I dropped out of communism class because of lousy Marx.
All the toilets in New York’s police stations have been stolen. The police have nothing to go on.
I got a job at a bakery because I kneaded dough.
Haunted French pancakes give me the crêpes.
Velcro—what a rip-off!
A cartoonist was found dead in his home. Details are sketchy.
Venison for dinner again? Oh deer!
The earthquake in Washington obviously was the government’s fault.
Be kind to your dentist. He has fillings, too.
What's the rabbit's favorite restaurant? IHOP.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Friday, August 10, 2012
An e-mail exchange from April 2000 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Q: MLA 5.32 says that if coordinate clauses contain commas, semicolons may be used in lieu of customary commas for separation of the clauses. Likewise for clarity, as I was taught in high school, aren’t semicolons permissible when the clauses are simply lengthy? Such clauses do not necessarily contain commas of their own.
A: Yes. As we say in 5.93, “If the clauses of a compound sentence are very long . . . a semi-colon may be used.”
An e-mail exchange from April 2000 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Q: MLA 6.57 (Ragged-Right Style) refers to a minimum line length, which ensures that long words will be broken, whereas short ones need not be. In computer technology I believe this is known as the “hyphenation zone,” or the distance from the end of the line within which the pro-gram divides words; changing the size of the zone affects how often words are divided.
Since MLA does not specify this length (and thus conceivably does not have a recommendation, what length does the University of Chicago Press use in its publications? (Microsoft Word has a default length of .25.)
A: MLA does not specify things like minimum line length because there is no standard line length for us to base it on. Trim size varies from book to book, as well as margin width, font size, etc., and as a result line length is different for each. These are all aesthetic judgments, as well as practical ones, and we leave them to the designer. Nonetheless, see 6.58.
An e-mail exchange from January 2004 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Q: In quoting multiple paragraphs, I've noticed that some stylists forgo closing quotations at the end of each paragraph and instead use only opening quotations at the beginning of each para-graph. Does MLA support this style?
A: Yes, this is the long-accepted style, and MLA accepts it.
An e-mail exchange from June 2003 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Q: Here’s the sentence “The educators in these schools are pushing a drug called Ritalin on students they diagnose with attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.).”
Must I use the initialism as above (in parentheses immediately after the phrase) before I use the initialism later in the essay? For example, if I want later to refer to “attention deficit disorder” as A.D.D., must I previously have referred to it as A.D.D. in conjunction with spelling out “atten-tion deficit disorder”?
A: This is a judgment call. If you are confident that your audience will know what A.D.D. refers back to, then you may choose to dispense with the hoop-jumping step of presenting the parenthetical initialism at first mention of attention deficit disorder. A.D.D. certainly would be a candidate for this looser treatment. Then there are initialisms that have become words in and of themselves—like CEO—and need not be introduced in any manner.
An e-mail exchange from February 2000 with Eric Wirth, an assistant editor at the Modern Language Association.
Q: How should I write a number that contains a decimal point? “Ten point two” or 10.2?
A: Normally you would not spell out a decimal (MLA Handbook 2.5.2). The only exception I can think of is in dialogue in a work of fiction. There is no way to say a numeral; you can only say the word for the number. Therefore, some novelists might write:
“His temperature is ninety-nine point seven,” the doctor said.
An e-mail exchange from June 2000 with Eric Wirth, an assistant editor at the Modern Language Association.
Q: If a sentence ends with a quote within a quote, there will be two sets of quotations after the period. Should a space be used between the two different quotes?
A: A standard full space—the space used between words—would probably be too much in any context. These two characters should be separated by just enough space to allow the reader to distinguish them. If the typeface you’re working with places them too close together, you may choose to insert a small amount of additional space. This is really a question of proper typography, or typesetting. In ordinary typing, it is fine to type the two characters together without worrying about the space between.
An e-mail exchange from July 2000 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Q: Does the 14th edition of MLA mention the typographical feature known as drop-cap, which magazines almost always use to begin an article or a new series of paragraphs.
Also, if the drop-cap is used on a one-letter word, should a space follow that word? If yes, the result comes across as poor, spacey typography. If not, the result appears cluttered. What does MLA recommend?
A: MLA mentions the drop initial at 18.55, although it does not address your question.
A space must follow a drop cap of one letter. Some fonts will work better than others in this situ-ation. A good designer will look at the chapter openings to determine whether a drop initial is going to work well for that particular copy and abandon the idea if the results are awkward.
An e-mail exchange from June 2000 with Eric Wirth, an assistant editor at the Modern Language Association.
Q: I was taught that a lowercase, not an uppercase, letter should follow a colon, except when the idea of the sentence after the colon is sustained by the subsequent sentence(s).
A: See Chicago 5.103 and page 57 in the MLA Handbook. They basically agree.
disintermediate (v): to eliminate the middleman or to move money from low-interest-bearing accounts to high-interest-bearing accounts
disarticulate (v): to separate bones at the joints (literally); to break up and disrupt the logic of (figuratively)
So thoroughly did Christopher Hitchens debate that he disarticulated the arguments of his opponents.
Q: Isn’t “customized” just a highfalutin way to say “custom”?
A: No. There’s a place for both words, and the overlap is minimal, when they’re used correctly.
A custom device is designed or built from scratch; it needn’t have anything in common with other devices.
A customized device begins with a baseline design and makes changes here or there.
We want to allow good things.
We want to allow for unwanted things.
The new gun will be idiotproof to allow safer use
The new gun will be idiotproof to allow for idiots.
Head home early to allow ample time.
Head home early to allow for traffic.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Adobe announced today that they won’t be making any more versions of Flash Player for mobile devices, but as usual for large companies, you have to work hard to decipher what they’ve said.
Confusing, marketing-voiced corporate communication is a terrible problem in this industry, and it’s damaging to the companies themselves. Adobe’s press release (that’s what it essentially is, even though it’s nominally a blog post) sounds sterile, aloof, disconnected and tentative—perhaps even with a note of desperation. I decided to rewrite it.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Friday, January 06, 2012
A guest post from Paul Stregevsky.
As a stickler for clear antecedents, I fault this headline, from the New York Times: "Iowa, the Early Decider, Still Hasn't."
I would even fault, "Iowa, the Earliest State to Decide, Still Hasn't." Still hasn't decide? Um, no. There is but one legitimate antecedent: "decided." And since readers would find it awkward to read "Iowa, the Earliest State to Have Decided, Still Hasn't," the headline writer must abandon the conceit and try again.
Mind you, I oppose constructions like this one not because they're illogical (though they are), but because they force readers to mentally correct the grammatical error.
Addendum: Actually, this could work: "Iowa, the Early State to Decide, Still Can't."
Addendum (1/4/2012): I e-mailed this post to Philip Corbett, the Times's associate managing editor for standards who writes the After Deadline blog. He's given me permission to publish his reply:
I agree in general that headlines should be grammatical. But given the constraints of the form, I think it's reasonable on occasion to expect the reader to make a bit more of a syntactical leap than might be demanded in other contexts. (Here, I suspect the headline writer was also alluding to President Bush's famous description of himself as "the decider," another argument for allowing the construction.)
What do you think?
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Tuesday, January 03, 2012
The company issued a statement that read: “Due to overwhelming demand of hot product offerings on BestBuy.com during the November and December time period, we have encountered a situation that has affected redemption of some of our customers’ online orders.”
Let’s parse that sentence for a moment. The company “encountered a situation”—that is, it was a passive victim of an external problem it couldn’t control, in this case, customers daring to order products it acknowledges were “hot” buys. This happened, inconveniently for Best Buy, during “the November and December period,” that is, the only months that matter to a retailer. For obvious reasons, the statement ties itself in knots trying to avoid mentioning that the “situation” occurred during the holidays.
The situation that Best Buy “encountered” has “affected redemption” of some orders. Best Buy doesn’t fill online orders, it seems. Rather, customers “redeem” them. So it’s the customers, not Best Buy, who have the problem. And those customers haven’t been left hanging; they’ve only been “affected” in efforts to “redeem” their orders. It’s not as if the company did anything wrong, or, indeed, anything at all.
It’s all so passive. It’s also a transparent and truly feeble pack of lies. Here’s what the honest and appropriate release would have said: “Due to poor inventory management and sales forecasting of the most popular products during our key sales season, we can’t fill orders we promised to fill weeks ago in time for Christmas.”
There’s a little more to the Best Buy’s press release: “We are very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused, and we have notified the affected customers.”
Again, note the use of the passive voice—“this” refers to the “situation” that Best Buy “encountered.” The “situation,” not Best Buy’s poor operations, “has caused” inconvenience to customers. It’s not something Best Buy did wrong. It’s like they’re reporting the weather, something utterly out of their control about which the company is a mere observer. They’ve “notified the affected customers” despite, it seems, no sense of obligation to do so, let alone to find a solution to a problem entirely of the company’s own creation. How sorry are they, do you think?
Again, here’s my rewrite: “Three days before Christmas, too late for the customers to make alternative arrangements, we are just now letting our would-be customers know. We have no excuse for such amateur behavior.”
Example #1: Putin’s last assignment for the spy agency was conducting surveillance on students at Leningrad State University. [NYT]
Revision #1: Putin’s last assignment for the spy agency was surveiling students at Leningrad State University.
Example #2: House G.O.P. Leaders Agree to Extension of Payroll Tax Cut [NYT]
Revision #2: House G.O.P. Leaders Agree to Extend Payroll Tax Cut
Example #3: Our growth over the past five years is a testament to the continued commitment of our clients.
Revision #3: Our growth over the past five years testifies to continued commitment of our clients.
Example #4: Our success is dependent on our people.
Revision #4: Our success depends on our people.
Addendum (7/12/2012): Laura Hale Brockway identifies 18 more "verbs that cut far from your writing":
Revision #5: The managing editor made a recommendation to use a new style guide.
Revision #5: The managing editor recommended a new style guide.
- make a decision. decide
- to be expanded. expand
- formulate an argument. argue
- raise an objection. object
- make restitution. resolve
- express resentment. resent
- arrive at a conclusion. conclude
- make a suggestion. suggest
- perform an analysis. analyze
- develop a plan. plan
- exercise conformity. conform
- undertake a development. develop
- find a solution. solve
- make a revision. revise
- provide clarification. clarify
- give encouragement. encourage
- cause a delay. delay
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Sunday, January 01, 2012
A member of a language ListServ to which I subscribe recently asked for guidance on exclamation marks. Two replies were particularly noteworthy:
1. In letters and most other longish communications, the message should speak for itself, with no need for embellishment. However, where space is limited, so that the wording alone cannot convey the message, such as in tweets, I suppose an exclamation point would be ok. But think of it this way: do you want to come across like a teenage girl? If so, use lots of "!!!"s Otherwise, make your message powerful wnough to do the job. IMHO!!!
2. From the Associated Press Stylebook:
- Use the mark to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion.
- Use a comma after mild interjections. End mildly exclamatory sentences with a period. lace the mark inside quotation marks when it is part of the quoted material: “How wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Never!” she shouted.
- Place the mark outside quotation marks when it is not part of the quoted material: I hated reading Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”!
- Do not use a comma or a period after the exclamation mark:
- Wrong: “Halt!”, the corporal cried.
- Right: “Halt!” the corporal cried.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Thursday, December 29, 2011
According to Tim Newcomb of Time.com, the proper spelling of the Jewish Christmas is "a matter of preference and mass appeal."
Hanukkah is the most widely used of the choices, while Chanukah is the second most-often-used spelling and the favorite of traditionalists.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Sunday, December 25, 2011
Q. Which is correct? “Most important, you enable your students to pursue their passions” or “Most importantly, you enable your students to pursue their passions.”
A. Although the second version is considered incorrect by many sticklers, and the first one sounds wrong to people who don’t know better, they are both correct.
New Questions and Answers [Chicago Manual of Style Online]
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Monday, September 05, 2011
Q. Can you please confirm the correct spelling of “TIME magazine”? CMOS 8.169 has Time magazine. However, TIME customer service tells me that TIME Magazine is correct. I think “magazine” should be lowercased, since it does not appear anywhere on the cover, and I do not think it is part of the official name of the magazine, even though they capitalize it on their website. What do you think?
A. We’re sticking with Time magazine. One of the best things about having a style guide is not having to phone every organization in a document and talk to customer service; instead, we use the style manual to present titles consistently. Even if you were to check the periodical itself, you might find that the magazine cover has one spelling (TIME) but the copyright information has another (Time) and yet another is used in running text (Time). And you know for sure that if you phoned again, a different rep would give you a different answer.
New Questions and Answers [Chicago Manual of Style Online]
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Monday, September 05, 2011
Without a rule, or at least a rule of thumb, a writer is left to weigh each word on its own, capitalizing “Ivy League” but not “website”; unhyphenating “email” but not “e-book”; merging “smart” and “phone” but not “health care.”
Regardless of your audience or publication, good writing is good writing. Whether you’re writing a children’s book or an op-ed, your words should bristle with energy and elegance. Whether you’re writing a letter of recommendation or an insurance policy, your words should be clear and crisp. Good writing is good writing.
We have updated our rule on the use of Latino to reflect more accurately what the editors of the 1995 Times stylebook intended: that the term in virtually all cases is the appropriate choice over Hispanic, in keeping with the practices and sensibilities of residents of our region.
We offer this combined new listing in place of two separate and occasionally confusing former entries:
Latino, Hispanic: Latino is the umbrella term for people in the United States of Latin American descent. It refers to Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and others from the Spanish-speaking lands or cultures of Latin America. A Latino woman is a Latina. It is preferable to say that an individual is Mexican American, of Salvadoran descent and so forth, instead of using the umbrella term.
Keep in mind that Latino is an ethnic group, not a race category. Latinos may be of any race: white, black, Native American, Asian, mestizo, etc. Some speak Spanish; some don't. Some are U.S. born; others are immigrants.
Note: Hispanic is acceptable in quotes or in proper names. The U.S. Census Bureau uses terms such as "Hispanic or Latino" and "non-Hispanic or Latino" in its survey questions on ethnicity and race. Stories and graphics based on census information are allowed to use that language when it is essential to explain methodology, but we should otherwise use Latino to describe the people in question.
In describing the old entries as "occasionally confusing," we mean especially every 10 years upon the release of fresh census data. It was easy to see why many of us interpreted the old rules as not only an invitation to use Hispanic but, in census stories, a requirement to do so. The old entry on Hispanic said, in part, "Use Hispanic only in quotes, in proper names or reports based on census data."
So, to be clear: Latino should be used in nearly all contexts; the exceptions, as described in the revised entry, must truly be exceptional. The online stylebook has been updated accordingly.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Friday, August 12, 2011
I recently e-mailed Merriam-Webster's Language Research Service the following question. Associate Editor, Neil S. Serven, replied as follows.
Q: Is it grammatically incorrect to say "a couple hours" instead of "a couple of hours"?
A: Both expressions are standard, though “a couple hours” is considered to be more informal. As such, couple is entered in the dictionary as both a noun and an adjective. The excerpt below from Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage discusses the use of couple as an adjective.
While the commentators were worrying whether the noun couple could be used to mean simply "two" and whether it could mean "a few" (see COUPLE, noun), the word itself was following the path of development that dozen had taken centuries earlier—dropping its following of and being used like an adjective. We are not sure when this process began in speech, but we begin to find written evidence in the 1920s. Sinclair Lewis heard it in the dictation of George W. Babbitt:
... all my experience indicates he is all right, means to do business, looked into his financial record which is fine--that sentence seems to be a little balled up, Miss McGoun; make a couple sentences out of it if you have to—Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt, 1922
Lewis was not the only one to use it:
... where the land rises to a couple or three or four feet—W. H. Hudson, Far Away and Long Ago, 1924
... in the phrases a couple peaches, a couple of peaches, only two should be meant—Krapp 1927
G. P. Krapp is the first commentator to mention the construction, but he evidently saw nothing wrong with it. A decade later, however, it was thought to be wrong:
couple. Not an adj.; must be followed by "of" and preceded by article—Muriel B. Carr &} John W. Clark, An A B C of Idiom and Diction, 1937
Of all the subsequent commentators who have disapproved the omission of of, Evans 1957 has the most interesting observation. While insisting that standard English requires of between couple and a following noun, he points out that the of is omitted before a degree word such as more or less. And indeed this construction is found in standard English:
We can end this chapter by looking at a couple more examples of Middle English writing—Charles Barber, The Flux of Language, 1965
... middle-aged men expecting a couple more promotions—Peter Preston, Punch, 28 Nov. 1973
These examples are all British; the construction is explicitly recognized by a recent British dictionary, Longman 1984. The construction occurs in American English too:
... till they had taken a couple more first-class lickings—Elmer Davis, But We Were Born Free, 1954
But American English usage seems to have been influenced by the number of commentators stressing the necessity of of. The result is the occasional " a couple of more":
... a couple of more wins from Jim Palmer—Jim Kaplan, Sports Illustrated, 10 Apr. 1978
Nickles 1974 refers to this construction as a "garble" and opines that it results from confusion of a couple of with some such construction as a few more; he fails to recognize the standard a couple more. Theodore Bernstein seems to have encountered the construction, too; in a June 1967 Winners & Sinners he quotes Evans with a measure of approval, but questions whether all degree words fit the pattern. He comes a cropper by confusing Evans's "degree words" with ordinary adjectives. Bernstein was unable to find any specific comment in usage books on "a couple of more" and concludes therefore that it is not wrong, though "ungraceful." If you find it ungraceful also and do not care to omit the of before more, you can put the more after the noun instead; the example above would become "a couple of wins more from Jim Palmer." Bernstein also notes that when more is promoted to pronoun by omission of the following noun, of is not used, as in "... I think I'll have a couple more."
But we have strayed from the red-blooded, 100-percent-American adjective before a plural noun that Sinclair Lewis heard in the speech of the middle-class Middle West. The usage is apparently not found in British English. Here are a few American ones:
The first couple chapters are pretty good—E. B. White, letter, 26 Oct. 1959
So let's start with a couple samples—Quinn 1980
Afterward, I met Mark Mullaney upstairs for a couple beers—Ahmad Rashad, Sports Illustrated, 25 Oct. 1982
... though Mr. Shaw himself still operated a couple wagons for hire—Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days, 1985
This construction seems well established in American English. Everyone who comments knows it to be common in speech. It is now quite common in general prose, but we have seldom found it in prose that aspires to formality and elegance. Its two most frequent uses are with periods of time and with number words like dozen, hundred, and thousand:
... have surfaced dramatically in the last couple weeks—James P. Gannon, Wall Street Jour., 16 Oct. 1970
A couple thousand cases of liquor—Wall Street Jour., 14 July 1969
To recapitulate: a couple without of seems to have begun being used like a few and a dozen in the 1920s. It is firmly established in American speech and in general writing (though not the more elevated varieties) when it is used directly before a plural noun or a number word. Before more, a couple is used without of in both British and American English and in this context is often preferred even by American commentators.
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Sunday, August 07, 2011
Then Christopher Johnson, author of the new book, Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, has your number:
“If you meet someone who claims to ‘love grammar,’ chances are they mean they love ‘correct’ grammar and enjoy pointing out other people’s mistakes.”
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Monday, August 01, 2011
In his Sunday column, Tom Friedman made an elementary grammar mistake: He wrote "is" instead of "are."
Where have all the adults in this party gone? Where is Dick Lugar, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Colin Powell, Hank Paulson and Big Business?
Posted by Jonathan Rick on Monday, August 01, 2011
Koufax [Sandy Koufax, the Jewish Hall of Fame pitcher, sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur] (v): to forgo an important sporting event because it coincides with a religious holiday
In the first episode of season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry accuses Marty, a newly observant Jew, of "Koufaxing us" because Marty refuses to play in the golf tournament because it falls on the Sabbath.
This morning, a colleague referred me to the following sentence:
"We’ve earned accolades from our clients as well as industry recognition for creative solutions and marketing strategies that exceed our clients’ expectations."
He argues that exceed isn't the best word here. "Whenever someone uses exceed to mean 'go beyond in a good way,' I urge him to change it to surpass. Exceed often has a pejorative connotation: 'He was cited for exceeding the speed limit,' or 'You've exceeded your month's bandwidth.' But surpass is always positive."
This sounds right, connotatively if not necessarily denotatively.
skinback [journalistic slang for peeling back your skin and feeling the pain]: retraction of the premise of an article
In his Reuters column yesterday, "How I Misread News Corp.'s Taxes," David Cay Johnston wrote, "For the first time in my 45-year-old career I am writing a skinback ... I will do all I can to make sure everyone who has read or heard secondary reports based on my column also learns the facts and would appreciate the help of readers in that cause."
What does it take to scare Google? In 2009, Microsoft's launch of Bing lit a fuse under the search giant. In his recent book, In the Plex, Steven Levy explains:
The search team set up a war room, hurriedly launching an effort dubbed the skunkworks. (That appellation, first used at Lockheed aircraft during World War II, is a generic term for an off-the-books engineering effort that operates outside a company's stifling bureaucracy.)
Refining the definition, I'd say "skunkworks" is a secret effort that seeks to maximize innovation by operating outside a company's stifling bureaucracy.
Yet when trying to use the word in a sentence, I wasn't sure whether it was a noun or adjective. Is it a "skunkworks project," or just a "skunkworks"? Merriam-Webster's dictionary, which lists "Skunk Works" as a "service mark," didn't provide guidance, so I e-mailed its language research service. Trademark Editor, Daniel Brandon, replied as follows:
The full entry for “Skunk Works” on our Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is:
Skunk Works service mark — used for research and development services
The important thing to note here is the function label, “service mark.” This means that this term is not strictly speaking a noun, adjective, or any other part of speech. It is instead a registered service mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. These are much like trademarks (which we treat in the dictionary in the same way), only it has slightly different uses and conditions.
As such, we are obliged to enter it only as the mark specifies. This is why we do not show “skunkworks,” as a lower-case closed compound.
So, I'd say that "skunkworks" may be used as an adjective or noun:
I do my best work in a skunkworks environment; skunkworks are my favorite projects.
Recently, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (ICE) produced a video series on plain language. Starring ICE Web Content Editor, Kathryn Catania, who also co-chairs the Plain Language Action and Information Network, the digital shorts are just what they should be: brief, catchy, and handy.
Since I couldn't find them on YouTube, I uploaded them there myself.
Acronyms and Abbreviations
In 2000, I asked the Modern Language Association the following question. I received the following reply.
Q: The second example sentence in MLA 5.49 (Appositives) reads:
Jeanne DeLor dedicated the book to her only sister, Margaret.
But the third rule of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style says that “no comma . . . should sepa-rate a noun from a restrictive term of identification.” The examples given are Billy the Kid; the novelist Jane Austen; William the Conqueror; and the poet Sappho.
Why, then, do you put a comma before “Margaret”?
A: Because “sister” in that sentence is not restrictive, since Jeanne had only one sister. If Jeanne had several sisters, and the sentence read,
Jeanne DeLor dedicated the book to her sister Margaret.
then the appositive would be restrictive (that is, essential—rather than parenthetical—to the de-scription), and would not be set off by commas.
See MLA 5.50 for other examples of restrictive apposition.
Which sentence is correct (my emphasis)?
- You can either have a small keyboard, like that on a Blackberry Bold 9900, or a slide-out keyboard, which makes for a heavier and thicker phone, like the Samsung Epic.
- You can have either a small keyboard, like that on a Blackberry Bold 9900, or a slide-out keyboard, which makes for a heavier and thicker phone, like the Samsung Epic.
As the New York Times's standards editor, Philip Corbett, pointed out yesterday, the latter is correct. The reason: Spelled-out, the first sentence means,
You can either have a small keyboard or you can a slide-out keyboard
Spelled-out, the second sentence means,
You can have either a small keyboard or you can have a slide-out keyboard.
In technical terms, as Corbett puts it, "The phrases aren’t parallel—after either we have verb plus object; after or there’s no verb, just the object."
In 2004, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor, Peter A. Sokolowski, replied as follows.
Q: The byline for a recent op-ed in the New York Times says that Pavel Palazhchenko translated Mikhail Gorbachev’s text “from the Russian.” Why is the word “the” necessary? “From Russian” sounds more intuitive.
A: It’s true that the convention of referring to a translated passage as being “from the French” and so on is an oddly un-English pattern. But the best we can do is surmise that a convention is exactly what it is. Since Samuel Johnson used it in his dictionary, it has been traditional to express the idea in this very Latinate manner.
In French, for example, the phrase traduit du russe would literally be rendered as “translated from the Russian.” It may be that a literal translation from back when the modern languages of French and English were being codified has simply carried over and resulted in the phrase as we have it today.
It is possible that the pattern could have been established in English independent of the influence of another language, but I’m afraid that the specifics of when and why are lost to history from our perspective.
Q: Are both “from the Russian” and “from Russian” correct? Which is more prevalent?
A: Both “from Russian” and “from the Russian” are perfectly correct. As near as I can tell from our citations, they are used with roughly equal frequency. This goes for such references to any language.
In 2004, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question.Emily A. Brewster from the editorial department replied as follows.
Q: I'd to rephrase the following quotes as follows:
- “The haves have freedom, the have-nots have not freedom” (Ayn Rand).
- “It’s the economy, stupid” (Bill Clinton).
- “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains” (Karl Marx).
- The haves have capitalism; the have-nots have not capitalism.
- It’s capitalism, stupid.
- Workers of the world unite for capitalism; you have nothing to lose but your hunger.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, paraphrase means “a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.” So, if I “paraphrase” something, I must retain its original meaning?
A: You are correct in your understanding that a paraphrase must retain the original meaning of the text being paraphrased. This being the case, your proposed statements are not paraphrases. (If Ayn Rand always equated capitalism with freedom, then your rephrasing of her statement is a paraphrase. However, if she ever used the word “freedom” to mean something other than “capitalism,” your statement would not be an accurate paraphrase; there’s no way to know for certain which sense of “freedom” she was using in the sentence in question—unless, of course, contextual text clarifies which she meant.)
Similarly, I don’t think the word “rephrase” can be accurately used to describe the modifications you’ve made to the statements in question. To phrase something is, according to the definition at sense 1a of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, is to “to express in words or in appropriate or telling terms.” To rephrase something is to express it in words or in appropriate or telling terms again; what is expressed must be the same.
The changes you’ve made to the statements by Rand, Clinton, and Marx are nothing less than major changes, and I don’t think your versions can be accurately attributed to the people who made the original statements.
Regarding the word “rephrasing,” I did not find any evidence in our files of the verb “rephrase” being used as you suggest, that is, to create a version of someone else’s phrase with a word or two that affects the meaning being changed. In rephrasing, the emphasis of a statement may be shifted, but the core meaning is not changed. Most often when something is rephrased, even the emphasis remains the same as in the original.
What you are doing to the phrases by these people is using them as a kind of template for saying something other than what those people said. It’s an effective rhetorical device because the phrases will have a familiar ring to many people, but your phrases are so different in meaning from the originals, that they cannot be accurately attributed to the people who wrote the originals.
In 2003, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question. Assistant Editor, Jennifer N. Cislo, replied as follows.
Q: My reading tells me that Islamism means a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and that an Islamist is a practitioner of Islamism. Is this accurate? If not, how do Islam and Islamism differ?
A: No, an Islamist is not necessarily a Muslim fundamentalist. Islamist means simply “an adherent of Islam.” Thus, an Islamist is a person who follows or believes in Islam. Both Islam and Islamism describe the religious faith of Muslims (which is the practice of Islam). The terms are somewhat interchangeable.
The key here is fundamentalist. Not all Muslims are fundamentalist. Not all Islamists are fundamentalist. Rather, fundamentalist describes a smaller subset of a religious or political group. For instance, there are fundamentalist Christians as well as fundamentalist Muslims within the Christian and Muslim faiths respectively. Fundamentalism, defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles,” describes a subgroup within a faith that is particularly strict and literal in its interpretations of and following of religious doctrine. Fundamentalists are generally a subgroup and, as such, do not represent the majority of those who practice their faith.
Q: In “Fighting Militant Islam, Without Bias,” Daniel Pipes writes, “Islamism differs in many ways from traditional Islam. It is faith turned into ideology, and radical ideology at that.” We therefore, Pipes concludes, “should regularly and publicly distinguish between Islam, the religion of Muslims, and Islamism, the totalitarian ideology.”
A: All the meanings I refer to are based on definitions found in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, which cover nicely all the senses of Islamist I found in my research.
The first sense of Islamism refers to the practice of Islam. An Islamist can simply mean one who practices Islam. Muslims also practice Islam. When used in this context, the meaning of Islamist and Muslim is the same. Although there are instances in print in which a Muslim is referred to as radical or militant, primarily the term Muslim is applied to the broad population of believers in Islam and not any small or militant faction.
The second sense of Islamism refers to a reform movement promoting a government and society run by the laws prescribed by Islam. This sense refers to the more radical factions within the Islam faith and an Islamist, in this context, is an adherent of a radical faction of Islam. Some might call this fundamentalist Islam.
We do have evidence for this in our files. But it is noteworthy that the word is almost invariably modified by an adjective, like militant, radical, revolutionary, and fundamentalist. This suggests to me that there is an effort being made to distinguish between the Islamist as a general follower of Islam and the Islamist as radical.
Part of the reason I did not address this issue in my first correspondence is that I hesitate to in any way define or debate at this time in history what a radical, fundamentalist, or any other follower of Islam might or might not be. I can only tell you what our definitions say and reiterate that they reflect how these terms are used according to our research.
In 2003, I asked Al Kelly, at the time the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History at Hamilton College, the following question. He replied as follows.
Q: In The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant refers to the “lower orders of society.” Is the proletariat synonymous with these “lower orders,” or does the proletariat carry specifically Marxist connotations?
A: Proletariat usually refers to modern industrial workers. Most in the lower orders of society in the 17th century were peasants.